Thorn of Africa

Mogadishu is a shattered city, but fragments of its old beauty remain, says Tristan McConnell.

After dark, the dull thud of mortars and the staccato popping of machine guns come more frequently. Sometimes the explosions make it hard to sleep, so I lie awake counting, learning to read the Mogadishu soundscape: one . . . two-three . . . four. Pauses follow sequences of explosions like Morse code, each bullet and mortar landing somewhere, ending or ruining a life.

The fighting is sporadic, but suffering and death strike frequently and at random. At an outpatient clinic one Monday afternoon in January, an 82mm mortar hits the queue waiting outside. Seven-year-old Muhammad is on his way to see his mother, a cleaner at the clinic, when the exploding mortar peppers his left side with shrapnel. Six other people are blown to pieces. In hospital hours later, the geometric white patches scattered across the curves and shades of an X-ray show where the shards have embedded themselves in Muhammad's body.

The current round of fighting is just the latest in Somalia's decades-old war. Al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia that recently confirmed its allegiance to al-Qaeda, is battling the Transitional Federal Government for control of the country. The TFG gets diplomatic support and money from the UN, soldiers from the African Union and military hardware from the US; take any one of these away and it would collapse like every other administration in the past 19 years. In 1991, the country's last functioning government - itself a venal dictatorship - was defeated by an alliance of clan militias. The warlords then turned on each other, fighting for economic and political control. Somalia has been a maelstrom of violence ever since.

There have been moments of respite. In 2006, the militias were defeated by the Islamic Courts Union - a political group of which al-Shabaab was the armed wing. But within months the union had been chased from power by a US-backed Ethiopian invasion.Now, al-Shabaab is back - stronger and more radical - and holds sway over much of Somalia. Mogadishu is a city of ruins, bearing testimony to the years of destruction. Roads are broken; buildings are shattered, concertinaed to the ground or lacking outer walls, like giant honeycombs. Battered minibus taxis move aside for armoured personnel carriers and "technicals": home-made Somali battle wagons constructed by welding machine guns on to pickup trucks. In street battles, gunmen use these to blast the hell out of each other and anyone in between.

But here and there are echoes of a lost grandeur. Down by the sea, there is an old city quarter of once-paved piazzas lined with roofless porticos, crumbling façades and ornate cracked archways. Dust devils twist down sun-bleached streets past groups of men drinking sweet tea. They wear loose short-sleeved shirts and macawis - printed cotton sarongs. Some cradle AK-47s in their laps. Women in niqabs hurry by, robes flapping in the wind.

At a crossroads known as K4, beneath a clear blue sky, a dozen or so soldiers sweat. They are members of the 5,300-strong Ugandan and Burundian peacekeeping force deployed by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). K4 is on a major route between the port and the airport, and the soldiers face almost constant fire from the nearby Bakara Market, an al-Shabaab stronghold.

Sometimes they fire back with mortars. They say they try to limit "collateral damage", but Bakara is a densely populated neighbourhood and a mortar is an indiscri­minate weapon. Bullets smack into concrete walls overhead or thud into the sandbags piled high around the rooftop of the old Egyptian embassy building where the peacekeepers are stationed. "Since morning we have been under attack from sniper fire," says the detachment's Ugandan commander.

A few days later, on 29 January, President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed is due to celebrate one year in power. At two that morning, al-Shabaab attacks, firing the first shots at K4. Tank fire reverberates around the city; the fighting that
follows is the heaviest Mogadishu has suffered in months.

Under fire

By late morning gunshots are still ringing out; but at Villa Somalia, the president's hilltop palace, government supporters are determined to have their anniversary party. Ahmed, a diminutive figure at the best of times, sits lost in the puffy folds of an outsized leather armchair, watching a wobbly documentary of his achievements projected on to a white wall.

He barely blinks when the first mortar hits a checkpoint on the edge of the sprawling palace grounds, killing one and wounding at least three. The second mortar is closer, landing just metres from the hall where hundreds are gathered to hear poets and choirs sing the president's praises. Panic starts to spread as dust and smoke leak through the latticework walls of the building. Then tanks fire back in the direction of the attack and there are no more mortars. The crowd resettles and the performers continue.

Assaults on "safe" parts of Mogadishu - Villa Somalia or the AMISOM headquarters, struck by suicide bombers last September - underline the weakness of the government's grip on even the few parts of the city it claims to control. With neither the TFG nor its enemies strong enough to inflict an outright defeat on the other, the city has fallen into a deadly impasse. A much-discussed government/AMISOM offensive against al-Shabaab may break the deadlock. But fighting has never yet brought peace to the residents of Mogadishu.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.